According to the nineteenth-century psychologist and philosopher William James, understanding any man is easy, ‘if you can catch the centre of his vision.’ But how much with visual artists can personal history be conflated with their artistic practice? The world we all believe ourselves to inhabit is never just what’s ‘out there’ but always imaginatively intertwined with the places we live and have lived, with our own bodies and our own pasts. It is a rare and special condition even among artists to see through their art and therefore to present a perception of the world as filtered through themselves. But Cézanne did this and I believe Lucian Freud also did in his lifetime as a painter which came to an end on the 21st of July of this year. He even called his work ‘autobiographical’, its true subjects being himself and his surroundings.
Last summer, I stood next to Lucian Freud and looked into those visionary eyes, which turned out to be deep milky pools of grey. Paying to slave for free on an internship, I had luckily ended up at the launch of Martin Gayford’s book about the experience of sitting for the artist. It was a warm night but pelting down with rain so that the streets outside the Timothy Taylor gallery were glossy and reflective (rather like black patent leather; this is an effect which I suspect is peculiar to Mayfair). Inside the gallery stood a somewhat drenched and motley bunch of journalists, PR executives, art dealers and publishers, not one of whom seemed to know whether the artist himself would be showing up. Eventually – long after the dull speeches were over and after many of the gathering had already stepped out into the shiny night to go home – a black cab drew up outside and Lucian Freud entered the gallery.
Freud stood there in his paint-splattered shoes, utterly disconnected from the PR that was buzzing all around him. This is a man who had deliberately avoided listening to speeches and who couldn’t tolerate a moment’s small talk. While he was making the bodily appearance required of him, the entire time he never brought his mind fully out of his studio, never lost that intensity and sheer interest in the visible that is necessary for painting.
I must admit that Freud appeared to me then more fragile and older-seeming than I had imagined he would be. I knew he was at that time 87 years old, but I had supposed he might be stronger and quicker than he appeared to me then for I knew he spent the whole of his life, right up to his last year, obsessively painting, always standing up in front of the easel and darting about.
In fact, there’s a word I believe may that help to capture a strand of Lucian Freud’s nature that I find apparent in both his painting and his person: dart. Freud had a notoriously wild and sociable youth, weaving from bar to bar with his friend the painter Francis Bacon, race-going and gambling on horses. Conservative estimates are that he has fathered over thirty children. His portrait, Self-Portrait with Black Eye from 1978 (which last year fetched over £2.8 million at Sotheby’s), is evidence of his free and merciless nature. Merciless, that is, not at all in the sense of deliberate cruelty, but in the sense that Nietzsche used the word to describe a godless universe: animal, natural, and without particular care for humanity’s invented virtues or comforts. Freud had gained the black eye in a fight with a taxi driver, a scrape which occurred not because the artist wanted to fight but simply because sometimes, as he remarked, ‘people said things to me to which I felt the only reply was to hit them.’ While he had a close circle of friends, Freud always understood animals deeply, and moreover claimed to see people as animals. He painted his sitters as having a stronger physical presence than an intellectual one; he loved, for example, to paint the twenty-stone benefits supervisor Sue Tilley and always presented her as a lumbering fleshy creature almost without any mental life. When he paints animals though, he paints animals that are lithe and quick: foxes, rats and his beloved whippets Pluto and Eli. Such creatures perhaps share Freud’s own instincts to dart, his eyes never resting, always shaking off the moral pettiness and pities of human life.
Yet this darting nature was always held together by Freud’s unchanging intensity and obsession over painting. Another word: pierce. His quickness is held fixed, pierced through in many ways. What other artist would be as successful as Freud and yet continue to work day and night at his studio so ferociously, so constantly? And very few artists work so slowly and systematically as Freud. A relatively portrait of David Hockney just forty centimetres high took him over one hundred hours. Freud stares intently at his subject building the work up by sweeping layer after sweeping layer but by aiming his piercing gaze at one tiny area of the subject’s face and painting that tiny section in full, the work as a whole spreading out from the centre. Freud seemed almost obsessed with depth of visibility through intense concentration, with piercing the visible world through so that he captured more of it than just its surface appearance. He liked working from his models naked because he said that way he could ‘see more’. In his life, too, Freud’s darting around was balanced by his piercing focus. Those who were honoured as his friends, like the gentle and supportive David Dawson, were held intimately close to him. And the story of Freud’s rise as an artist is itself one of fierce determination despite stylistic trends in art during the twentieth century being set against his thickly impasto-ed, quasi-realism.
Lucian Freud’s life and his way of seeing stood uniquely together. Both were darting and whippet-like, contrapuntally pierced through with intensity and dedication. When such a wonderful life has passed, how fortunate we are that part of its vision is preserved in paint.